The NFL draft is always filled with intrigue: Whose stock will rise? Whose will drop? And what teams will be willing to make a big move up to get their man?

This year, more than ever, no one can predict with any certainty what will happen.

Sure, Cam Newton appears to be the consensus No. 1 pick today by the Carolina Panthers. But the current labor situation has to play into the plans of just about every other pick.

Because of the current uncertainty surrounding the owners’ lockout, teams have been unable to fill their holes by signing free agents, something they’ve traditionally done before the draft. Will they look to do that in the draft, where future success is never guaranteed? Or will they simply pick the best available player and try to fill their holes via free agency once the labor situation is resolved?

The Patriots have positioned themselves well, no matter what route they take.

Because of some shrewd dealing, the Patriots hold three of the first 33 picks in the draft — Oakland’s at No. 17 (for Richard Seymour), their own at 28 and Carolina’s at 33 (for last year’s 89th pick). They have two picks in each of the first three rounds (getting Minnesota’s third-round pick, at 74, for Randy Moss), giving them six of the first 92 and nine picks overall.

Given the Patriots’ needs entering the draft — a pass rusher, an offensive lineman and a running back — it wouldn’t be surprising if Belichick and his staff in the draft room trade up to get their man. Under Belichick, the team has made 15 trades on draft day to move up in the draft.

But the Patriots hold only five picks in the 2012 draft, having already traded away three picks in Rounds 6 and 7. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots trade down this year to acquire more 2012 picks. They’ve made 11 trade-down transactions with Belichick at the helm.

So, you can pretty much expect anything, as usual.

The Patriots have made it clear in this unusual offseason that they have prepared as usual for the draft. They’ve had players in for visits, such as quarterbacks Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert. (They do, after all, have to plan for an eventual successor to Tom Brady.) They’ve made personal visits. They’ve studied the profiles.

As Nick Caserio, New England’s director of player personnel, said in his recent predraft press conference, “Ultimately you have to make the decision for who you feel is best for your teams.”

And who might that be for New England?

Well, there’s plenty of speculation. No mock draft is identical, but many of the same names show up for New England at Nos. 17 and 28: running back Mark Ingram of Alabama, defensive end Cam Jordan of California, defensive end J.J. Watt of Wisconsin, offensive lineman Danny Watkins of Baylor, offensive lineman Mike Pouncey of Florida and defensive end Da’Quan Bowers of Clemson.

Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner in his junior year, is intriguing. The Patriots got great mileage from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead last year, the two combining for 1,555 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. But Ingram is a power runner and the Patriots need one for their offense to operate at its highest efficiency. Plus, Ingram, son of former NFL player Mark Ingram Sr., played for Nick Saban, a close friend and confidant of Belichick.

But they probably wouldn’t take him until the 28th pick, if they still have it.

Their first pick has to be on the line, either offensive — where tackle Matt Light is a free agent, guard Stephen Neal has retired, tackle Nick Kaczur is coming off back surgery, Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins is upset that he’s been designated as a franchise player and center Dan Koppen turns 32 in September — or defensive — where the Patriots got just 14.5 sacks from their interior three.

They need to generate a pass rush. Getting Ty Warren back healthy will help, but he’s more of a run stopper. Jordan, Watts and Bowers are rated as Richard Seymour-type players, capable of holding up against the run but also exceptional pass rushers.

They could also select an outside linebacker, such as Akeem Ayers of UCLA or Aldon Smith of Missouri.

On the offensive side, Pouncey, a close friend of tight end Aaron Hernandez, is regarded as a can’t miss, much like his twin brother, Maurkice, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie center with AFC champion Pittsburgh last year. He’s big — 6-foot-5, 303 pounds — a trait the Patriots like in their offensive linemen, and athletic enough to start at either center or guard. But he may be gone by the time the Pats pick. So Watkins, 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, may be the pick. He has the size and talent to start at either guard or tackle.

Chances are the Patriots won’t hold on to their first two picks, perhaps combining one with a second-round pick to move up or to pick up 2012 picks.

But it is likely they will use many of their picks on the defensive line. Belichick has told several Boston writers in separate interviews that this year’s draft has a bounty of defensive line prospects. If they don’t get their top choice early, look for the Patriots to draft defensively later on. That’s something they’ve done well in the past.

Of the six former Belichick first-round draft picks still on the roster, only one — Mankins — is an offensive player. The others are defensive linemen Warren and Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive backs Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather.

The Patriots will need to address Brady’s successor soon. There’s a good chance they would use a second-round pick on either Locker or Florida State’s Christian Ponder, both strong-armed quarterbacks who played in pro-style offenses.

In the end, much will depend on how hard other teams go after the Patriots’ picks. Last year, New England was on the verge of trading its first second-round pick, at No. 42.

In a very revealing video recently shown to the media, the Patriots waited until the final minute to turn down the offer — “I think we should just take our man,” said Belichick — and selected tight end Rob Gronkowski of Arizona.

Gronkowski turned out to be a huge find, with 42 catches and 10 touchdowns.


Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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